The Godson – Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is known as one of the greatest authors of all time. His story “The Godson” (1886) teaches important lessons about exercising authority and living in obedience.
God entrusts all believers with great authority. What we do with this authority is important. Healthy respect for authority and influence is necessary for us to fulfill the purposes God has for us. There are two ways we can disrespect authority:
- By not using the authority He gives us.
- By taking authority that is not given to us.
Both options can lead to dire consequences.
The first option is illustrated in Jesus’ well known parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In the parable three men are entrusted with differing amounts of wealth. The third man is entrusted with only one talent—still a considerable sum of money. When he is given the talent he is also given the authority to trade with it and potentially increase its value. Instead he buries the talent in the ground. Because he doesn’t use the authority he is given he is judged severely.
The second option—taking authority that is not given to us—is powerfully illustrated in Tolstoy’s “The Godson.” Below is a slightly edited excerpt from the story.
Excerpt from “The Godson”
A son was born to a poor peasant. He was glad and went to his neighbor to ask him to stand godfather to the boy. The neighbor refused—he did not like standing godfather to a poor man's child. The peasant asked another neighbor, but he too refused, and after that the poor father went to every house in the village, but found no one willing to be godfather to his son. So he set off to another village, and on the way he met a man who stopped and said:
'Good-day, my good man; where are you off to?'
'God has given me a child,' said the peasant, 'to rejoice my eyes in youth, to comfort my old age, and to pray for my soul after death. But I am poor, and no one in our village will stand godfather to him, so I am now on my way to seek a godfather for him elsewhere.'
'Let me be godfather,' said the stranger.
The peasant was glad, and thanked him, but added: 'And whom shall I ask to be godmother?'
'Go to the town,' replied the stranger, 'and, in the square, you will see a stone house with shop-windows in the front. At the entrance you will find the tradesman to whom it belongs. Ask him to let his daughter stand godmother to your child.'
The peasant hesitated.
'How can I ask a rich tradesman?' said he. 'He will despise me, and will not let his daughter come.'
'Don't trouble about that. Go and ask. Get everything ready by to-morrow morning, and I will come to the christening.'
The poor peasant returned home, and then drove to the town to find the tradesman. He had hardly taken his horse into the yard, when the tradesman himself came out.
'What do you want?' said he.
'Why, sir,' said the peasant, 'you see God has given me a son to rejoice my eyes in youth, to comfort my old age, and to pray for my soul after death. Be so kind as to let your daughter stand godmother to him.
'And when is the christening?' said the tradesman.
'Very well. Go in peace. She shall be with you at Mass to-morrow morning.'
The next day the godmother came, and the godfather also, and the infant was baptized. Immediately after the christening the godfather went away. They did not know who he was, and never saw him again.
The child grew up to be a joy to his parents. He was strong, willing to work, clever and obedient. When he was ten years old his parents sent him to school to learn to read and write. What others learned in five years, he learned in one, and soon there was nothing more they could teach him.
Easter came round, and the boy went to see his godmother, to give her his Easter greeting.
'Father and mother,' said he when he got home again, 'where does my godfather live? I should like to give him my Easter greeting, too.'
And his father answered:
'We know nothing about your godfather, dear son. We often regret it ourselves. Since the day you were christened we have never seen him, nor had any news of him. We do not know where he lives, or even whether he is still alive.'
The son bowed to his parents.
'Father and mother,' said he, 'let me go and look for my godfather. I must find him and give him my Easter greeting.
So his father and mother let him go, and the boy set off to find his godfather.
The boy left the house and set out along the road. He had been walking for several hours when he met a stranger who stopped him and said:
'Good-day to you, my boy. Where are you going?'
And the boy answered:
'I went to see my godmother and to give her my Easter greeting, and when I got home I asked my parents where my godfather lives, that I might go and greet him also. They told me they did not know. They said he went away as soon as I was christened, and they know nothing about him, not even if he be still alive. But I wished to see my godfather, and so I have set out to look for him.'
Then the stranger said: 'I am your godfather.'
The boy was glad to hear this. After kissing his godfather three times for an Easter greeting, he asked him:
'Which way are you going now, godfather? If you are coming our way, please come to our house; but if you are going home, I will go with you.'
'I have no time now,' replied his godfather, 'to come to your house. I have business in several villages; but I shall return home again to-morrow. Come and see me then.'
'But how shall I find you, godfather?'
'When you leave home, go straight towards the rising sun, and you will come to a forest. On the further side of the forest you will find a garden, and in it a house with a golden roof. That is my home. Go up to the gate, and I will myself be there to meet you.'
And having said this the godfather disappeared from his godson's sight.
The boy did as his godfather had told him. He walked eastward until he reached a forest. Leaving the forest, he came upon a large garden in the midst of which stood a lofty palace with a golden roof. At the gate stood his godfather, smiling. He welcomed his godson, and led him through the gateway into the garden. The boy had never dreamed of such beauty and delight as surrounded him in that place.
Then his godfather led him into the palace, which was even more beautiful inside than outside. The godfather showed the boy through all the rooms: each brighter and finer than the other, but at last they came to one door that was sealed up.
'You see this door,' said he. 'It is not locked, but only sealed. It can be opened, but I forbid you to open it. You may live here, and go where you please and enjoy all the delights of the place. My only command is – do not open that door! But should you ever do so, remember what you saw in the forest.'
Having said this the godfather went away. The godson remained in the palace, and life there was so bright and joyful that he thought he had only been there three hours, when he had really lived there thirty years. When thirty years had gone by, the godson happened to be passing the sealed door one day, and he wondered why his godfather had forbidden him to enter that room.
'I'll just look in and see what is there,' thought he, and he gave the door a push. The seals gave way, the door opened, and the godson entering saw a hall more lofty and beautiful than all the others, and in the midst of it a throne. He wandered about the hall for a while, and then mounted the steps and seated himself upon the throne. As he sat there he noticed a scepter leaning against the throne, and took it in his hand. Hardly had he done so when the four walls of the hall suddenly disappeared. The godson looked around, and saw the whole world, and all that men were doing in it. He looked in front, and saw the sea with ships sailing on it. He looked to the right, and saw where strange heathen people lived. He looked to the left, and saw where men who were Christians, but not Russians, lived. He looked round, and on the fourth side, he saw Russian people, like himself.
'I will look,' said he, 'and see what is happening at home, and whether the harvest is good.'
He looked towards his father's fields and saw the sheaves standing in stooks. He began counting them to see whether there was much corn, when he noticed a peasant driving in a cart. It was night, and the godson thought it was his father coming to cart the corn by night. But as he looked he recognized Vasíly Koudryashóf, the thief, driving into the field and beginning to load the sheaves on to his cart. This made the godson angry, and he called out:
'Father, the sheaves are being stolen from our field!'
His father, who was out with the horses in the night-pasture, woke up.
'I dreamed the sheaves were being stolen,' said he. 'I will just ride down and see.'
So he got on a horse and rode out to the field. Finding Vasíly there, he called together other peasants to help him, and Vasíly was beaten, bound, and taken to prison.
Then the godson looked at the town, where his godmother lived. He saw that she was now married to a tradesman. She lay asleep, and her husband rose and went to his mistress. The godson shouted to her:
'Get up, get up, your husband has taken to evil ways.'
The godmother jumped up and dressed, and finding out where her husband was, she shamed and beat his mistress, and drove him away.
Then the godson looked for his mother, and saw her lying asleep in her cottage. And a thief crept into the cottage and began to break open the chest in which she kept her things. The mother awoke and screamed, and the robber seizing an ax, swung it over his head to kill her.
The godson could not refrain from hurling the scepter at the robber. It struck him upon the temple, and killed him on the spot.
As soon as the godson had killed the robber, the walls closed and the hall became just as it had been before.
Then the door opened and the godfather entered, and coming up to his godson he took him by the hand and led him down from the throne.
'You have not obeyed my command,' said he. 'You did one wrong thing, when you opened the forbidden door; another, when you mounted the throne and took my scepter into your hands; and you have now done a third wrong, which has much increased the evil in the world. Had you sat here an hour longer, you would have ruined half mankind.'
Then the godfather led his godson back to the throne, and took the scepter in his hand; and again the walls fell asunder and all things became visible. And the godfather said:
'See what you have done to your father. Vasíly has now been a year in prison, and has come out having learned every kind of wickedness, and has become quite incorrigible. See, he has stolen two of your father's horses, and he is now setting fire to his barn. All this you have brought upon your father.'
The godson saw his father's barn breaking into flames, but his godfather shut off the sight from him, and told him to look another way.
'Here is your godmother's husband,' he said. 'It is a year since he left his wife, and now he goes after other women. His former mistress has sunk to still lower depths. Sorrow has driven his wife to drink. That's what you have done to your godmother.'
The godfather shut off this also, and showed the godson his father's house. There he saw his mother weeping for her sins, repenting, and saying:
'It would have been better had the robber killed me that night. I should not have sinned so heavily.'
'That,' said the godfather, 'is what you have done to your mother.'
Taken from ‘Twenty Three Tales’ by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by L. and A. Maude. Public Domain.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
"Vengeance is mine, I will repay," says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
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